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Salving a Workplace Pain

January 14, 2002

People who develop a type of injury caused by such repetitive actions as chopping chicken carcasses or hammering away at computer keyboards cannot sue their employers to force workplace accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court ruled last week. The unanimous decision reflects a sound interpretation of the 1990 measure, which Congress intended to protect an estimated 43 million Americans with mental or physical disabilities from discrimination in jobs, housing and access to public facilities.

Employers, however, would be foolish to view the court's ruling, which hinged on the definition of "disability," as an excuse to avoid making ergonomic improvements. And until federal and state lawmakers do a better job of addressing the workplace conditions that give rise to this often excruciating injury, litigation and frustration will escalate.

Ella Williams, the plaintiff in the court case, had worked with power tools on a Kentucky auto assembly line. She developed carpal tunnel syndrome, intense pain in her wrists and shoulders, as a result of the repetitive motions her job involved. When pain made it impossible for her to work, Williams got medical treatment and some benefits from Kentucky's workers' compensation system. She wanted to return to the job, but because her doctor told her not to lift more than 20 pounds she asked to be assigned lighter duties, such as inspecting cars. Her employer, Toyota Motors, refused. She quit and sued the company under the disabilities act, claiming that her injuries were so severe as to constitute a disability like blindness or paraplegia.

The high court said no. A disabled person must have a "permanent or long-term" impairment, the court held, not an injury that is likely to heal.

Many farsighted businesses have redesigned jobs or workstations in recent years to minimize repetitive motion injuries. Other companies contend that such changes would be too costly and that some workers who claim to have back or shoulder problems, for example, may not have hurt themselves on the job.

Some business leaders and others, including Eugene Scalia, whom President Bush appointed Friday as the top lawyer for the Labor Department, go so far as to voice skepticism that ergonomic injuries exist at all--a view about as valid as doubting that the planet is round.

Vehement pressure from business pushed Congress last year to kill federal ergonomic rules passed by the Clinton administration. Fortunately, equally fervent reaction from unions prompted Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to promise she would take another look at the problem. Tuesday's high court decision should push her to move quickly.

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